Q&A: managing in the terminal

JFK International Air Terminal’s General Counsel Lawrence Hurwitz takes a pragmatic approach to his role. He assesses the value his legal training brings to other responsibilities, such as human resources

Modern Counsel: Airports are dynamic places. Can you describe a typical day?

Lawrence Hurwitz: There’s no such thing as a typical day. No matter what I might have planned, something unexpected will come up that takes priority. It can be anything from security activities or dealing with the New York State Liquor Authority to HR issues or a lawsuit affecting one of our vendors or concessionaires. Because we’re the landlord, almost every issue has to flow through my office.

MC: What is the most unusual issue you’ve had to deal with?

LH: We once had a start-up airline that oversold capacity and left hundreds of passengers stranded. Their planes just never showed up. Technically, that wasn’t our responsibility, but we jumped in to coordinate ground transportation, lodging, and other ways to help those passengers.

MC: Is not representing an airline an advantage when it comes to managing the terminal?

LH: We don’t have to worry about operating aircraft, so we’re able to focus on a shorter list of priorities. As part of the Amsterdam-based Schiphol Group, one of the world’s leading international airport operators, we’re able to leverage its vast network of experts. We often send staff there to learn best practices that we can implement here in New York.

MC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

LH: With thirty-two different airlines and scores of concessionaires and vendors—not to mention four faith-based chapels onsite—the sheer volume of work is the biggest challenge. Obviously, some tasks require more attention than others, but we get it all done on schedule. We’re a small group within a large company, so I tell my department heads to let me know if there’s something important pending, and we figure out how to tackle it.

MC: With so much volume, were you concerned when you added human resources to your responsibilities?

LH: My only hesitation was wondering if I was enough of an expert to do the job. But after four years, I’m fairly confident in my abilities and those of my colleagues. What’s surprised me, though, is how much I enjoy it. It gets me away from my desk, and I interact with employees much more. It can be difficult to have to take action involving people you know and like, but I’m still always in the room to ensure that all the administrative details are handled correctly — that everyone completely understands the situation and is given an opportunity to make changes to improve and address the issue at hand. I’ve also been able to institute a workers’ council in which employees are free to discuss ongoing issues. In it, we’ve developed other initiatives, such as uniform policies and new evaluations, to address their concerns.

“I’m only half joking when I say I’m not sure how anyone does any job without first going to law school. It provides discipline and a trained way of thinking.”

MC:  Are there parts of your legal background that is particularly helpful in human resources?

LH: I’m only half joking when I say I’m not sure how anyone does any job without first going to law school. It provides discipline and a trained way of thinking. In HR, it’s very helpful in addressing the different applicable laws and regulations, including rolling out new policies and making sure we stay compliant in all areas. Of course, there are many HR professionals who never go to law school, but it’s certainly helped me do that part of my job.

MC: What’s the biggest difference between being a general counsel and your former work as a talent agent?

LH: I was more interesting back then. I had better stories and more names to drop at cocktail parties.